After another seemingly successful draft, the Washington Redskins have set themselves up for immediate success and long-term dividends with some of their recent moves. By drafting players to positions that were already strong, General Manager Scot McCloughan and Head Coach Jay Gruden have altered an organization’s approach to building and winning.
Gruden, coaching in his soon-to-be third season as the head man, has — to some — done the unthinkable along the way in molding a group that he feels he can groom. When he was hired back in 2014 fans were hoping for an up-and-coming players’ type of coach… one who could stand on his own accord and not have to defend his approach to the game or have his personnel dictated to him from above by team ownership and management.
Things would start out on the rough side as some moves and personnel situations would test a once proud franchise’s loyal fan base as well as some at Redskins Park.
During Gruden’s first season he used wide receiver and fan-favorite Santana Moss less and less as the year went on. The move angered some fans and even had some players wondering what the rookie coach was trying to accomplish.
Last year popular fullback Darrel Young — who was the team’s 2015 Walter Peyton Award winner (awarded for a player’s community outreach involvement) — was also used less and less in Gruden’s offense and this too upset the fans.
Even two-time Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris, who had a squeaky clean image himself, seemed to have been phased out during Gruden’s first two seasons. He recently signed with the team’s division nemesis Dallas Cowboys.
The move of all moves however was the demotion of then-named starting quarterback and once “savior” of the franchise, Robert Griffin III. This move was so widely scorned by large numbers of fans that some were left wondering how soon into the season Gruden would be shown the door by the front office.
Overall, these moves showed that the head coach was not afraid to trust his football instincts regardless of how unpopular they were. He had to put his stake in the ground if he was going to do anything different from what had been done by many other coaches in Washington during Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s era (except for legendary Hall of Fame Head Coach Joe Gibbs). By showing who was boss — at least on the field — Gruden received support from Snyder as well as from McCloughan.
A fan would have to be 35 or older in order to understand how things used to be done here in the nation’s capital but the state of the team has not looked this bright in perhaps two decades.
When the Redskins were winning and competing for playoff and Super Bowl berths almost on a yearly basis during the 80s and early 90s, they had a system in place. It was a system of checks and balances where unity in the building had to be there at the end of the day.
Then-General Manager Bobby Beathard would converse with Gibbs and former owner Jack Kent Cooke about draft picks and what the team needed. He would get input from both men about what they wanted. And at the end of the day, they all had to mutually agree on who would be the best talent to bring to Washington.
Ever since Snyder purchased the Redskins back in 1999, the team has gone through a litany of coaches and “talent evaluators” who failed miserably at keeping this once proud franchise in its place as an NFL power.
During Gruden’s first year roaming the sidelines it was obvious that he was trying to fit square pegs into round holes that just weren’t there. Some of this was him being a rookie coach and some of it was the personnel he inherited. While some of the personnel are still on the team, overall the talent that he had at that time was not the kind he wanted in his system.
Regardless of what some fans that are still bitter with Gruden think, in 2015 he kept an injury-riddled team together during tough times and the team actually got better each week as the season progressed. This is worth noting and it is the sign of a coach who never lost his players to distractions.
Gruden now has a more seasoned approach to his job. As one player mentioned, the head coach has sense of when to get on his guys but also when to praise them and hand out positive reinforcement.
His approach with the media has changed as well. In his first year he was more laid back about what he said and when he became upset, he said things that struck a nerve with fans and some media. His truthfulness was refreshing but perhaps a bit more than needed in public all the time… especially when talking about players.
Gruden now chooses what he says more wisely but the candor and fact-bearing approach is still there. This is a coach who now understands what he wants from his team and more importantly from himself. There is no question that he is in full control of the players on the sidelines… as all good coaches are.
Add McCloughan’s supremely gifted eye for talent to the equation and the result was that the GM’s first ever draft class had enough of an impact that the Redskins put together a successful campaign resulting in a division title.
First-year players such as OL Brandon Scherff, WR Jamison Crowder and LB Preston Smith (just to name a few) came up big for the team last year, especially down the stretch. The team wrapped up their first NFC East Division title in three years and just the second division crown won in 16 seasons.
This year the GM threw a few wrinkles into the team’s draft when he selected receiver Josh Doctson with Washington’s first-round selection (No. 22 overall). This moved raised quite a few eyebrows because one of the team’s strengths is at the wide receiver position with All-Pro wide out DeSean Jackson and team single-season record-holder for receptions in Pierre Garçon.
What McCloughan showed by drafting the talented Doctson out of Texas Christian University is that he will take the best player available on the team’s draft board regardless of what the team’s need is at the time. This year fans and media felt that the defensive line should have been addressed early in the draft.
“In my personal opinion, if you draft for need, that’s when you get in trouble,” McCloughan said about his move the Monday after the draft. “All of a sudden you’re like, ‘Son of a gun, we had these three guys higher and they’re going to the Pro Bowl, but we forced the issue to take that guy.’ I wanted to address it early. I wanted to address it [in the] first five picks, but I’m taking the best football player. I have to. For me to do my job and make this organization as strong as it can be, I’ve got to take the best football players.”
McCloughan may actually view “need” along the front defensive unit differently than what seems to be the universal assessment of the same.
“We’ve got a lot of good football players on the defensive line,” he said. “I would have loved to add a younger guy… younger guys. But it didn’t work that way. We went into it and if you had told me the night before I’m taking a receiver in the first round, I would have laughed at you and said ‘you’re crazy.’ But [Doctson] was the best player. I don’t want to force the issue, but I understand where our depth is at. I understand who can and can’t play. We’re OK up front. We’re OK.”
When he was hired after the team’s 4-12 campaign in 2014, McCloughan said that he wanted to have competition every day in practice, to build through the draft and to develop and sign their young players. This is what has happened so far.
As well, over the last year the Redskins have shown that they are willing to shell out big money to players that they feel they can build around. For instance, during this current offseason the team took care of business by placing the franchise tag (~$20 million in 2016) on quarterback Kirk Cousins. The front office still hopes to have him locked up to a long-term deal before the 2016 campaign begins.
Tight end Jordan Reed — who, like Cousins, had a break-out year in 2015 — signed a long-term deal last week which will have him in the Burgundy and Gold until 2021.
Regardless of the money spent, the team’s approach to cultivating its own talent and rewarding its own players with contracts is a breath of fresh air and an approach that should keep the team relevant and competitive year-in and year-out.
As hard as it is for them, fans must understand that the good-to-great teams regularly either release its veterans or let them leave via free agency. These are the hard business decisions that have to be made and some of them are certainly highly unpopular. But as long as the moves are made in order to result in a better product on the field (not for the marketing guides); they are part of a formula that will sustain success.
The Redskins have come full circle as an organization over the past two years and it is no secret that they now have a markedly different product than in recent past. And it is one that should compete to defend its NFC East crown in 2016. As a result of its circuit, the state and direction of the team is the best it has been since owner Dan Snyder purchased the team almost 20 years ago.